Stanford University has offered “Public Interest Tech: Case Studies” classes through its Sociology Department over three quarters.
The PIT Case Studies class is run as a weekly seminar for 1-credit or Credit/No-Credit for all students in the university. Other universities, colleges, or high schools may consider replicating this seminar class to service its students. It’s a speaker series class, with a different speaker invited to each class to present a case study of public interest technology, and to allow the students to engage in deep conversation about the value, impact, ethics, and requirements of PIT work.
Each class is structured in a similar plan.
Case Studies class plan
Short reflections: Students reflect on the past week’s speaker. In the virtual class, this is done with a shared Google Doc. Each week’s speaker is listed, and the week following the speaker’s visit, the students spend 5 minutes writing down the insights, questions, and links they took away from the past week.
Guest speaker: Our week’s guest public interest technologist joins us with a presentation or informal talk for 25 minutes. Some have slides, some don’t. We ask them to talk through their overall work, a specific example, and their own career pathway. While they’re talking, students and instructors begin writing questions in the Zoom chat.
Conversational Q&A: For the last 25 minutes, students queue up to ask questions. They can ask follow-ups and go back and forth with the speaker. We aim to create an informal atmosphere, in which there’s open conversation. Students sometimes ask policy questions, and sometimes ask more career or personal questions.
In addition to the weekly classes, there are make-up opportunities and required reflection papers throughout the quarter.
- Zoom recording: Each class is recorded and shared privately with the class via the Canvas/Panopto platform. They are available for students who were not able to make the virtual class, or want to rewatch.
- Class requirements: Students taking the class for a grade must submit 2 500-word reflection pieces by the end of the quarter. All students must attend all classes and participate actively with questions, or make up any missed ones by writing short reflections based on the videos of the missed classes.
- Class readings: Some speakers propose pre-reading for students, including articles, websites, reports, and other materials for students to familiarize themselves with before class.
Past speakers include public interest technologists from federal agencies, city innovation labs, public interest incubators, data science think tanks, advocacy organizations, B-corp organizations, university groups, and venture funders who are working on public interest tech. Each quarter’s class has a mix of policy areas, including criminal justice reform, data privacy, eviction prevention, international development accountability, national security, immigration, public health, and more.
The PIT Case Studies class addresses the following topics with its visiting speakers and its students. These themes carry through for speakers, even if they come from very different policy areas or stages of their career
Themes of the class
- Getting to Impact with PIT: What are some technology examples, business/nonprofit models, and policy plans that can lead to impactful tech and data work in the public interest? How can data science, AI, and tech development serve the public good? Let’s talk through specific examples of what’s been done and impacts that have been seen.
- The Ethics of PIT Work: How do you predict or measure harms that might come from using tech in various public interest settings? What are ways to manage this risk of harm, and to respond if harms emerge? What are ethical frameworks to consider when joining a certain group or undertaking a particular initiative?
- PIT Career Pathways: What are career opportunities to become a public interest technologist? What kind of skills and job pathways lead to this kind of work? How can a student begin preparing for a PIT career? Should you start at a for-profit large organization, and then go to smaller non-profits?
- Sustaining Momentum around PIT work: How do you avoid burnout and sustain your own personal and team momentum? How do you take the long view for large, structural problems that are difficult to solve quickly? How do you measure change, and build your own professional development?
The class’s official description is as follows:
“What does public interest technology look like in practice? Each week, a guest speaker will present a case study of their work to improve government and public systems through innovative methods, data-driven efforts, emerging technology, and human-centered design. Students will reflect on the practicalities, ethics, and best practices of public interest technology work.”